Johnnie Walker’s Blue Label is a no age statement blended whisky that sells for $200 for a 750 ml. bottle. That’s some coin for a blend! So what makes JW’s Blue so special? According to Johnnie Walker (link above) the Blue is:
“an exquisite combination of Scotland’s rarest and most exceptional whiskies. Only one in every ten thousand casks has the elusive quality, character and flavor to deliver the remarkable signature taste.” They also give us some of the constituent whiskies: “Johnnie Walker Blue Label is created using a selection of rare casks from the Speyside and Highland distilleries – including delicate Cardhu and Clynelish, warm, rounded Benrinnes, as well as Islay malts for our signature smokiness.”
My Dewars vs. Johnnie Walker Red post was so popular, I reprised with the Irish titans, Bushmills vs. Jameson. Today, it’s Ballantine’s 12 vs. the venerable (and titanic) Johnnie Walker Black, another 12-year old blend.
The Ballantine’s story
So, who are behind Ballantine’s? George, the namesake, started his distillery in 1827, and gained some recognition in 1895 with a royal warrant. Ballantine’s Finest was developed in 1910. Their main expression, it sells 200,000 bottles a day according to their site. Assuming a 700 ml bottle, that’s 51 million liters a year! Prodigious. In 1959, they came up with the 12-year expression which is the subject of this review.
In the previous post, I mentioned Dewar’s old full-page magazine ads, with the Scots Guard soldier or some other Scottish kitsch. I also mentioned the ubiquity of White Label, the fifth largest selling blended Scotch in the world and top selling Scotch in the U.S.
Dewar’s web site claims the White label is “The World’s Most Awarded Blended Scotch Whisky.” This post is going to answer the question, is it any good for sipping? And to give it some spice, we’re setting the White up against a competitor, the Red, from Johnnie Walker.
The Dewar’s packaging, like the ’12’, is in a classic style, again heavy on the heritage with “True Scotch” announced just below the “White Label”, rendered in some old-timey font. Boy howdy, glad to see we don’t have a fake scotch on our hands. I have a warm feeling inside (and I haven’t even tried any), like when I get the Domino’s box with ‘Real cheese’ emblazoned on the side. Lower down we see the ‘Gold and Prize 500 medals’ claimed. I guess they are including silver, bronze, even iron medals? Who knows.
If you were of my generation, you’ll remember Dewar’s ads from magazines–often full-page ads, typically with a Scots Guard soldier in full regalia and some marketing flack typical for its day. These days I don’t notice many advertisements for Dewar’s. When I encounter the brand I’m on a commercial flight and I’ve asked what they have for scotch; it’ll be their White Label. In the marketing wars the brand appears to be outshone by the massive Johnnie Walker complex, but they still have a strong presence in bars in the U.S. They claim to be the fifth largest selling blended Scotch in the world and top selling Scotch in the U.S. Maybe Johnnie just advertises more?
Notably, Dewar’s web site claims the White label is “The World’s Most Awarded Blended Scotch Whisky.” Maybe they just entered more competitions, I don’t know. I tried finding a list of their awards. Still looking.
This is the first of three straight NAS whisky reviews. I relented on Talisker’s Storm when the price came down, from over $55 locally (Oregon) to just under $50. The original price was not so obnoxious as some NAS whiskies — I tried a Dalmore King Alexander III recently, for example, which runs $305, and Ardbeg’s Corryveckan is about $90. But still, $55 is the range where you can get a nice 12-year-old.
The standard Talisker 10, one of my favorites, isn’t cheap of course, at about $65 locally, so the opportunity to fill the Talisker-sized hole in my liquor cabinet for fifty bucks was too good to pass up. So, how does the Storm compare? After all, it is a Talisker, and we have expectations: of light peat smoke, a unique medicinal nose, shades of wrack and seaweed, citrus and fruit. Those expectations are whetted by the marketing message prominent in this expression: it comes in a big bluish box with stormy clouds and splashing ocean waves, as you can see from the photo. The text reads that this whisky “takes the most intense experiences to a new level.” Well, that’s a marker thrown. We can expect this dram to be a bit combative, eh?
I’m relieved to see they bottle the Storm at the traditional (and offbeat) Talisker ABV percentage, 45.8. Must be an inside joke on Skye. Side-by-side with the 10-year-old (oh dear, sibling rivalry) I see right off the color is comparable, but the Storm is a shade more straw to the 10-year’s gold. That’s to be expected, in the absence of coloring (but Diageo isn’t telling one way or the other), if we assume younger malts in the Storm’s marry.* Less time in cask == less color.
So, you have someone you know is ‘into’ Scotch and you want to buy a nice present. You don’t want to set a foot wrong, and certainly don’t want to see her writing about your present as “the Scotch I save for folks who don’t know Scotch, or drown it in Coke.” Yes, I’ve read that on many a Scotch blog. Rude, I think…but it happens — because A) The styles of Scotch vary wildly in their aroma and taste (why it’s a fascinating obsession, yo!) and B) Scotch drinkers are often quite partisan about their preferred style.
Prep: Single malt vs. blend, and U.S. availability
We’re going to focus mostly on single malt scotches — this refers to a whisky that is made totally from one distillery’s production. They can (and do) mix casks and even years of production for a single malt. But as soon as they mix casks from another distillery and add grain alcohol (mass-produced, typically), then it is a blend. Common blends are well-known, like Johnnie Walker, Chivas, Dewars, Whyte and MacKay. These are the province of the casual drinker, not the Scotch enthusiast. Single malts will have more character, as the peculiarities of water and still are not blended out — hence they appeal to folks looking for adventure. Note: my focus is on brands available in the U.S., as that’s where I live.
There is a bit more to learn, so let’s do this in steps. We’ll gather some intelligence, align that to some facts, and send you shopping with a budget and some suggestions.
I just got back from a week in New York City – spent seven days tramping all over Manhattan Island, seeing the sights. We had fabulous weather and came home knackered every day. And yet, after the crowds, and with the noise and the time change, it was great to unwind with a nightcap at the hotel. We were spending major $$$ on a rarely indulgent vacation (food, shows, museums), so we bought a bottle of whisky at a local shop instead of heading to the hotel bar for a $15 cocktail. The pick for the week: Johnnie Walker Black Label. That whisky, for the few souls who have read through the reviews below, serves as a benchmark for me — a case of a mass-market product done consistently well. And in a week where we didn’t want to have to over-think our whisky, it was a natural choice. Good enough to feel we were still treating ourselves while reasonable enough in cost (though with that Manhattan tax, a bit spendy) to not kill our daytime budget. I had written of JW Black here that it had a nose of light peat, with honey, peaches and sherry notes. The palate I find fairly complex, repeating the peaches with a dash of vanilla, white pepper and earthy oak. I note a touch of watermelon as well. The finish is its weakness, as it is rather quick. You get some honey and oak tannins to balance. Bottom Line: JW Black is hard to beat for the price. It is $40 for 750 ml at home; we found a liter bottle for $62 in Manhattan – about 20% more expensive. Continue reading “Whisky and Words Number 7: Johnnie Walker Green and Black”